But nothing compared to “ … being brought onstage by Bill Graham,” says Doug Gray. “I can still close my eyes and see Bill standing there beside me.”
Some two years after forming in their native home of Spartanburg, S.C., in 1971, the Southern-rock cowboys were waiting with Graham, the noted rock promoter, in the wings of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom with itchy trigger fingers.
Gray and the rest of the band were eager to put to rest some misguided notions about bands from Dixie who talked a little funny.
“Everybody wanted to see the Marshall Tucker Band,” says Gray. “Everybody wanted to hear the band. People in California were amazed to hear that people who said, ‘Golly,’ could actually play. After seeing ‘Andy Griffith,’ we got up there and they thought they were going to see ‘Hee Haw.’ But we showed them we could actually play, and that’s when we grabbed hold of them and didn’t stop.”
Proof of Marshall Tucker’s ability to galvanize an audience of skeptics is found on Way Out West: Live From San Francisco 1973, the group’s latest concert LP.
A raucous set, punctuated by the rambunctious opening salvo “Hillbilly Band” and the emotional outpouring of “Can’t You See,” the eight-song recording cooks with inspired jams, classy jazz passages and simmering, down-home blues.
Youthful and full of vim and vigor, the Marshall Tucker Band blazed with white-hot intensity, even if they didn’t hit every note just perfectly.
“If I had a weak moment,” says Gray, “(Guitarist) Toy (Caldwell) would step up with a strong lick. We hadn’t gotten into cocaine and heavy liquor yet. When you do that, you have to think just as much about just standing up as you do about playing.”
One man who believed in the Marshall Tucker Band before that night was Graham. The group, which included Gray, Toy and Tommy Caldwell (bass), rhythm guitarist George McCorkle, reed player Jerry Eubanks and drummer Paul Riddle, had played the Winterland before and left an impression.
“The first time in there we were with Tower Of Power and Sons Of Champlin,” recalls Gray. “We were opening for them. We stayed at a Japanese place, a Japanese hotel just up the street, which was a little strange because we’d gotten back from Vietnam in ’68. The people there were sweet and kind, though, and we had a ball there.”
That was the kind of information Graham was likely to extract when he’d meet new bands. Like he did with everyone that played his venue, Graham made it a point to get to know the real people that made up Marshall Tucker. Gray still marvels at that.
“Bill always greeted you and made you feel that he appreciated your music,” says Gray. “At after-parties, he’d come around and he’d want to know about your life. Like my dad worked in a cotton mill ’til he retired, and Toy’s dad was a plumber — things like that.”
That calm behind the scenes contrasted greatly with the hurricane Marshall Tucker was capable of whipping up onstage. And while the band often brings things to a Southern-rock boil on Way Out West, they can also be found exploring the nuances and stretching the boundaries of jazz, deep soul and the blues (“Everyday (I Have The Blues),” or indulging in a little country, as with one of Gray’s favorites, the album’s closer “24 Hours At A Time.”
“This record is just a good representation of how we felt as a band at the time,” says Gray.
It was a period where the world was just catching onto Marshall Tucker, and Toy Caldwell, in particular, was developing a reputation as a hotshot up-and-coming guitarist, and people started calling him “skinny thumb.” Gray doesn’t know how that got started.
“I have no idea,” says Gray. “I heard it from the audience on a piece of tape, someone yelling out, ‘Hey skinny thumb.’ He could play like that was his pick.”
As for that particular tour in 1973, Gray doesn’t recall much about it, except that the band was hustled from one gig to the next without a lot of time to relax.
“We’d have to leave right after every show,” says Gray. “All I remember of that particular tour was we went up to San Diego to hook up with Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I remember Ronnie Van Zandt being barefoot with both eyes black. He got the hell beat out of him. He’d said something to somebody, and they got him.”
Such memories bring a smile to Gray’s face, and in going back and mixing the new live record, he was transported back to the Winterland. Even the mistakes he heard didn’t bother him.
“With the flubs, we thought it was better not to fix them,” says Gray. “I’ve never seen anything that was perfect.”
At the Winterland in 1973, however, Marshall Tucker was as glorious as ever.